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Famed New York French Restaurant and Patrons Bid One Another Adieu

The Nation

Manhattan's Lutece, named the nation's best for six consecutive years in the '80s, shuts down after a 43-year run.

February 15, 2004|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Lutece, a landmark of French cuisine in the United States, served its last supper Saturday -- a special Valentine's dinner seasoned with regrets -- then shut its front door and went out of business.

For its final night, the restaurant, which for decades was the epitome of exquisite dining and decor but which fell on hard times in recent years and fought to meet expenses, was packed with patrons.

Many came not only for such dishes as beet chartreuse with oyster cream, Dover sole souffle for two, sauteed foie gras with dark chocolate sauce and bitter orange marmalade -- but for large helpings of nostalgia.

The midtown restaurant with an understated green awning was named for Lutetia, the Roman name for Paris. After it opened on Feb. 16, 1961, it quickly became so popular that people had to reserve months ahead of time.

Chef Andre Soltner became one of the first culinary superstars, emerging from the kitchen to quietly and graciously greet such guests as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, heads of state, U.N. ambassadors and Hollywood stars.

At its zenith in the 1980s, Lutece was ranked by the Zagat Survey as the best restaurant in America for six consecutive years.

In 1994, telling customers he was fatigued, Soltner, who became Lutece's sole owner in 1972, sold it to Ark Restaurants, which tried to update the menu.

In retrospect, officials of the company said in announcing Lutece's closing, the attempt was a mistake. It alienated longtime customers.

The company also blamed a marketwide decline in lunchtime expense account customers and the general economic malaise after the attack on the World Trade Center.

Under Lutece's new owners, two other chefs tried to fill Soltner's shoes. But longtime patrons who liked the old menu drifted away.

A branch of Lutece in Las Vegas will remain open, Ark said.

The passing of Manhattan's Lutece is perhaps the most prominent example of a shift in the old culinary guard. La Cote Basque, an elegant "grande dame" whose cuisine won praise as did its realistic luminescent murals, has announced it will shut down in March.

On the same day Lutece was closing its doors, Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn did too. Gage & Tollner, which had been in business since 1879, served American food in a historic dining room with distinctive antique gas lights; waiters wore uniforms with stripes signifying the long years of their employment.

At Lutece, some staff members struggled to contain their sorrow over the closing Saturday. Others voiced anger as they prepared for the final servings.

"You should have been here in the past, not now," said a headwaiter, who like others interviewed inside Lutece, declined to give his name.

"What is it going to be like?" the maitre d' was asked as he piled napkins on tables. "It's going to be a madhouse. We are completely booked up. Full."

In the kitchen, lobster sauce simmered on a stove.

"We are very busy. We have 250 people tonight. It is the last dinner," a supervising chef said. "I want to make sure everything is going to go well."

"I would appreciate this interview maybe a year ago. You know, when Lutece maybe was not, you know, in this position," he said, tears in his eyes.

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